Friday, August 25, 2017

For these suffocatingly hot days, a chilling literary ghost story, THE LAST TO SEE ME. And here to talk with us about time, hauntings, and so much more, is amazing author M Dressler

FIRST, the acclaim:


The New York Times
‘Elegantly imagined, finely tuned work.’
The Miami Herald

 "Hauntingly original, provocative, and dashed with wit—this literary ghost story changed the way I see the world." —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World

"Dressler’s chilly new story is one woman's unforgettable fight for visibility."— Booklist

"This poem of a novel, exquisitely written, introduced me to the inner life of a ghost and held me spellbound throughout. . . . I heard whisperings from the attic, from under the bed. M Dressler has written an extraordinary book, poignant and tragic." —Luanne Rice, New York Times bestselling author of The Beautiful Lost

 Debuts are always thrilling, and this one was so wonderful, that yes, reader, I blurbed it. I'm so happy to have Ms. Dressler here, and I forgot to ask her, where she got that fabulous hair!  Thank you so much for being here and I cannot wait to see what you write next.

I always think that writers are haunted to write the book they need to write. Was it this way for you?

Absolutely. I’ve always felt writing is a form of being haunted, so much so I even wrote this feeling, this awareness, into one of my early novels. A character, a writer, says about his own characters: “They come to you . . .  It’s very strange, how it happens. They’re like ghosts, in the beginning . . . but ghosts who haven’t lived yet, or even been born. So you have to work backwards, looking for clues about them, about who they might be, from the way they haunt you. And in this way you never get away from them, and they never leave you.” I’ve never written a book without that sense of being stalked by someone who won’t come to light if I don’t sit still enough to pay attention, and who then stays with me . . .

But with The Last To See Me, a true ghost story, this feeling was even more pronounced. The way the book “arrived” was so haunting. I was simply sitting next to my husband looking out the window while we drove up a beautiful, craggy stretch of the Pacific Coast near Mendocino, California, and all at once I turned to him and said, “I think someone died here and didn’t want to leave.” I just meant to try out a story idea on him . . . and then, whoosh, Emma showed up. I could see her. Plain as day. Black hair. Cleft chin. Strong body in a white shirtwaist and dark skirt. Black boots. Strong hands. I’d never had that happen to me before: a character manifest so completely, so quickly. People ask me how I came up with her character, or how I made her ghost so “solid,” and I can’t remember anything more than that: Emma just arrived. That was the initial, swift haunting. The long, slow haunting was trying to live up to her story. It took a long, long time to write and revise this book. I put it away several times. I didn’t think I could do justice to Emma and her world—I might talk about the act of writing feeling like being stalked by a ghost, but I’d never written an actual ghost story before, or had a clue how to do it. Still I couldn’t imagine shelving her in the dark, leaving her. Especially because her story is about someone refusing to be invisible, someone who is a “nobody,” a poor, immigrant, working class girl, forgotten, demanding to be seen, to be known. In a way, more than any character I’ve written, she needed to reach an audience.

How scary was it (pun intended) to write a ghost story that would also be literate and compelling?

That was what took so long. And not because of any dearth of wonderful models out there, writers who’ve done it so brilliantly—Sarah Waters and Shirley Jackson and Daphne DuMaurier. It’s because it’s tricky writing a page-turner that also makes the reader want to linger on the page. With a gothic novel, you’re wrestling with a tide that wants to go in and out at the same time. You want the reader to feel both welcome and estranged, to feel “enjoyably claustrophobic,” as Publishers Weekly put it. And at the same time, you want, or at least I wanted, to do something much deeper than simply spook readers or make them feel creepy. I wanted to ask big questions. Who is it and what is it a culture most wants to erase, not to see, and why? Why are we fascinated by ghosts, but almost invariably want them, by the end of a story, to vanish? What does justice for the dead really mean? And how far are we willing to let a character’s resistance, her fight for justice, go? Ghosts stories are, at their heart, about controlling boundaries and borders. I tried to write a book that would make readers feel and shiver against the boundaries, and question them, too.

I loved the intertwined real life and afterlife. I’m a big fan of quantum physics and I know scientists believe that time is a man-made construct, that everything might be happening at the same time. Do you think we are all forever reliving bits of our past, present and future all the time?  Can you talk about this please?

So glad you asked. I think about time all the time. I think much if not most of what we do as writers is try to make sense of time by turning it into a story. I was simply sitting next to my husband looking out the window . . . I spend most of my time trying to organize time on the page, or teaching other writers how they might do it. I’m also obsessive about time. I organize my entire life, chronologically, into photo albums so that I can actually see time passing. I love and need schedules and deadlines. I hate being late. I got very upset, once, when a family member dismantled a family photo album. And you just don’t get “upset” in this way unless you have a strong suspicion that underneath it all time is not what it appears to be but is actually layered and fluid and complex and the only way you pretend it isn’t is by braking really, really hard every second or so.

Curiously, I’ve had one moment in my life (so far) when the human construct of time collapsed and for an instant I felt, or I thought I felt, time differently. It was when I learned that my father had died. I heard the news, and the floor dropped out from under me, and I floated. For about fifteen seconds, human time evaporated and I saw and understood my father’s whole life, his birth and youth and adulthood and death existed simultaneously, as a single unit, which meant mine did, which means your does, which meant everything does. I tried so hard to stay in that space of everything-all-at-once, because it was so powerful and so clear. And then I couldn’t stay there. My mind balked. I went back to making chronological photo albums.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out, scribble on legal pads, only use the computer, have rituals?

All of the above. I have legal pads and journals and once upon a time (not so much anymore) index cards that ideas and stories and scenes and summaries got scribbled down on, and then I’d spread them out all over the floor and build a runway toward the computer. Sometimes, when I know a story really well, I don’t need to map it out so much. The Last To See Me didn’t need many maps. The plot showed up soon after Emma did. But usually I’m flying over unknown country and I have to leave maps and outlines all over the place for myself, which is strange because basically you’re trying to plot a course to a continent that doesn’t exist yet, and half the time you have to ignore half of what you’ve jotted down, because nothing but your gut, no note, no index card, tells you that, no, that’s the wrong direction.

I also have rituals of avoidance. Like jumping onto social media. Though that’s really a ritual to get me into a word- and world-space before I start writing. I used to worry social media would be a distraction, and it can be, but for me it also helps me remember there are real people outside the world of my head and remember the power of words themselves—you can literally sit and watch people reacting to language on Facebook and Twitter.

And then there are the rituals—the best kind!—of celebration. After I finish every draft of a book, I always play the song that was on the radio when I finished the very first draft of my very first novel, twenty years ago (I can’t say which song because that’s private and part of the ritual but I play it really, really loud and dance and whoop all over the house). And then, when the first printed copies of one of my books arrive, I open up the box and I take out the top copy and I hold it up to the sky to all my ghosts, to all the people, like my father, who are no longer with me but who helped me become a writer and a human being—and I dance and say, See what we did.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The next book. Always the next book. I always obsess when I finish a book and it’s published and I’m ready to start another one. What on earth makes you think you can do it again? Remember how hard that was? And then, after I’ve decided I’m going to write another book anyway, the central question: Who is it about?  Not what, but who. There are so many stories that need to be told, so many perspectives that need to be heard. I try to write from a different perspective or perspectives every time, while still being aware of the limits and privileges of my own. I don’t want to tie myself to one type of character or book or genre, but I want to be very aware of the choices I make and what those choices mean outside the haunted space of my own head. So I obsess about the choices I’m making, and, again, I obsess about time. You only have so much time. Which story are you going to tell next? And then I decide. And then I get obsessive about all the details surrounding the story—right now I’m completely obsessed with mining—and all the while I know the obsessing is just another kind of ritual, because the truth is that the heart of a book, at least for me, is not the frenzy of obsession but the calmness of the characters stalking you. They come, they sit down on the dashboard in front of you as you ride along a lonely piece of coast. And that’s that.

Can machines really be kind? Judith Newman talks about why we should all embrace weirdness and about her "everyone-is-going-nuts-for-it" book about her autistic son and his incredible relationship with Siri--To Siri With Love

When my friend, the acclaimed journalist/author Sheila Weller tells me about a book, I always listen. She lead me to Judith Newman, who it turns out, I was already friends with!  To Siri With Love is an astonishing book about her son Gus, who is on the autism spectrum, and how Siri opened up his life. It's warm, funny, astute, and you need to read it.

Judith writes about entertainment, relationships, parenthood, business, beauty, books, science, and popular culture. Her work has run in more than fifty publications, including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Harper's, The Wall Street Journal, Allure and more.  Newman's books include the 2004 memoir You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman: The Diary of a New (Older) Mother.

I'm so thrilled to have her here!  It's great when you love both the book--and the author, right?

I’m so happy you wrote about Gus, but what was the why now moment when you decided you were going to do a whole book?  

Because someone asked?  Embarrassing but true.  I’m so frightened of rejection when it comes to a personal topic like this that I would never have gone out there and tried to sell a proposal if an editor in the UK, Jon Butler, hadn’t approached me first.  But I do feel now that this is a good moment for a book like this.  Even if I didn’t have an autistic child I might be reading it – because right now, given the prevalence of autism, we all know and/or love someone on the spectrum.

I love it that the book is a memoir made up of essays. I want to know why you used this form?

Originally I thought of a year-in-the-life kind of thing, but that was just unsatisfactory.  It seemed to me that there were very particular issues around family life and autism that leant itself to thematic telling.  That sounds high-falutin.  Basically I wanted to be funny and throw in a bit of science, so this is how I did it.

What does Gus think about the book? Did he know that you were writing about him?

I was just telling him yesterday, “Honey, people seem to really like the book I wrote about you” and he said.  “That’s great Mommy.  Do you know how many kinds of sea turtles there are in the Bahamas?”   So, safe to say, he doesn’t care.

There truly seems to be more awareness about autism. There is a new series Atypical, about an autistic teen-ager, which I think is pretty well done. Have you seen it? Am I wrong?

You’re not wrong, but I haven’t seen Atypical.  Maybe I don’t watch things about autism because I live it!

You also wrote about how adults could be unknowingly clueless or cruel, and how doctors could be judging (I bet because they had no good answers for you and didn’t want to dare imagine they might be at fault or that they simply didn’t know. ) If you could educate people, what would you want to tell them about responding to Gus?

Nothing!  I want people to be who they are, and let me work with my son to understand kindness and cruelty.  But I would say this to people who are neither kind nor cruel but a little fearful:  Don’t be.  My son might not be looking at you, but it doesn’t mean he’s not paying attention; he can just listen better that way.  (Well, usually.  He’s a teenage boy.  Sometimes he’s really not paying attention)  He might be hopping when he talks to you, but it’s just because he’s happy.  He might not get the joke  Explain it to him!  There is nothing wrong with information.  Most fear is caused by misunderstanding.  Plus:  weirdness is just funny.  Embrace weirdness

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Our political landscape and, right this moment, Steven Mnuchin’s wife, Louise Linton.  She marries  my two very favorite qualities in a human being:  cruelty and social climbing.  Is there anything worse than a person who claims a posh background who is completely and utterly classless?  

What question didn’t I ask that I should have? And what questions would Gus ask?  He wouldn’t ask.  He would tell you these things:  the temperature, the chance of thunderstorms, the types of sea turtles in the Bahamas (five --green turtles, loggerhead turtles, Hawksbill turtles and oh my god my eyes have glazed over now)),  and the news on ABC-7.  He reads us the headlines every night, and wants to discuss them, which is enormous progress for a person with very limited interests.  It’s because he wants to connect more with other people, people who, say, are not interested in, say, the eyebrows on Disney villains.   A few nights ago he was shouting from the other room that a ‘Prius was graping a teenager.’  a teenager.  A car?  And what’s graping?.   Gus pronounciation isn’t always so good.   I asked him to spell the words, and it turns out it was a priest, and he was groping.  That became a very different conversation.

Want to raise thoughtful, wonderful kids? And have a gorgeous book to boot? Deborah Copaken and Randy Polumbo talk about THE ABCS OF PARENTHOOD

I first fell in love with The ABCS OF ADULTHOOD, with text by the amazing Deborah Copaken and photographs and design by the equally amazing Randy Polumbo ( Check out his web page.) And now they have a new, most wondrous book, THE ABCS OF PARENTHOOD.

I've always been a total fangirl to Deborah Copaken.She's brave, she's funny, she's incredibly smart, generous and creative, Her bio she wrote for her website is so funny, I'm letting it speak for itself here: Wrote bestselling Shutterbabe, followed by unpublishable drivel, followed by Between Here and April, Hell is Other Parents, and the New York Times bestselling The Red Book, which was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize); published essays in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, Elle, More, Slate, Paris Match, O, and others; shot photo assignments; produced and shot a documentary in Pakistan for CNN in the wake of 9/11; became a columnist for The Financial Times; performed live on stage with The Moth, Afterbirth, Six Word Memoir, and Eve Ensler’s tribute to Anita Hill; adapted Hell is Other Parents for the stage, starring Kate Burton, Sandy Duncan, Tovah Feldshuh, Julie Halston, and Rita Wolf; wrote several screenplays and a TV pilot that were never produced; watched Shutterbabe (the big and small-screen versions) languish in development hell; had another baby; lost appendix, uterus, father, Upper West Side home, bearings, socks, sanity, and several nouns; found Harlem, yoga, and occasional serenity. But not the socks. Or the whatchamacallit. Nouns.

 The upheaval years; separated from husband and life partner of 23 years; sent the two eldest off to college; received a diagnosis of stage 0 breast cancer; got sucked into the vortex of job turmoil, twice, while single parenting the little one 24/7; seriously contemplated emigrating to Scandinavia; instead, moved across the street from the Inwood Hill Forest, the greatest city refuge no one in Manhattan has ever heard of; granted three miracles: 1) sold Shutterbabe as a TV series and was hired to co-write the pilot for NBC/Universal; 2) landed new full-time job plus three-book deal to co-create, with artist Randy Polumbo, a series of ABC books; and 3) love.

Thank you both so very, very much.

I always want to know the why now reason for a book? What was going on that made you feel, “Oh my God, I have to write this now, now, now.” (Psst, I know the answer, but readers will want to know--)

Randy and I sat down to map out the letters for this book (A is for acceptance, B is for boundaries, etc.) in the late summer of 2015, long before the current hate-filled rhetoric of a certain small-handed dictator man began filling our airwaves and twitter feeds, so it wasn’t a reaction to him or the news per se. And yet clearly, as my two eldest and Randy’s daughter were busy flying the nest; as we looked around at the competitive, helicopter parenting environment of New York, where getting your kid into the right college starts before preschool and escalates as they move through the years, we both felt that there was a real need for a book about compassionate parenting. About starting from a place of love and acceptance instead of blindly trying to mold your child into something they’re not. About embracing what we called the “J is for jazz” of parenting, meaning there’s no sheet music, no roadmap, no one best way to raise a child. About finding peace amidst the beautiful mess of glitter, dog hairs, and toys and finding joy in the small moments: a walk outside, an ice cream cone. I’m a big fan of Thich Nhat Han’s mindful essentials books (How to Love, How to Eat, How to Sit, etc.) as well as Buddhist tracts in general, although I wouldn’t call this a Buddhist book so much as a book whose roots are similar to those of Buddhism: kindness, love, empathy. I think we also felt we both knew what we’d done wrong or things we wished we could have done better as parents and wanted to impart that hard-earned wisdom.

You’re a critically acclaimed, majorly accomplished writer. But does every book- including this one—feel like a new book with new problems, etc. in it? Were you writing it differently at all? Did anything surprise you about the writing?

Absolutely! Each book is its own unique puzzle. What’s the voice? What’s the tone? How is it organized? This was the first book I co-wrote and co-shot. Randy wrote and photographed 13 letters, I wrote and photographed 13. But then, insofar as the writing was concerned, we each had ultimate editing and veto power over the others’ entries to the point where it’s impossible to point to any one sentence and say, “I wrote that,” or “He wrote that.” We wrote it, passing the manuscript back and forth over email—and then once, toward the end of the process, in person at Randy’s studio in Gowanus—and it was not always easy. We’ve been good friends for three years now, so we were able to criticize one another without worrying about hurting the others’ feelings, but we’re still human, and it was sometimes challenging for each of us to hear what the other didn’t like, even if we ultimately knew the criticism was valid.

Sending your kid off to college is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We see my son every few weeks, but realizing that your child is now an adult is mind-bending. And so is the way you give them advice, which is why I loved your book so much. It talks about what is important but in a way that respects young people. I also love that it’s a great little gift for adults, too.

I’m pretty sure you’re talking about our first book, THE ABC’s OF ADULTHOOD, here, so I’ll speak to that. I wrote THE ABC’s OF ADULTHOOD just before my own eldest left for college, so it was one of those from-the-heart, oh-god-I-can’t-believe-he’s-leaving mash notes from a mother to a child. But that book, too, started from a place of acceptance. So often I see parents trying to give advice to a young adult child that does not take into consideration who that child is. “You should go to law school!” is bad advice if your kid has no propensity for logical thinking. And trying to keep your college-aged student from ever drinking alcohol is a fool’s errand, but you can tell them to try an experiment of sobriety, just to see how it feels.

What was it like working with Randy Polumbo? Which came first, the prose or the image?

I feel extremely fortunate to have collaborated with Randy. He reminds me of a modern-day Willy Wonka, only less cynical, smarter and more grounded in reality. His studio in Gowanus literally looks like Wonka’s factory, and it was recently featured in New York Magazine. His compound in Joshua Tree, constructed solely from recycled materials, is, to my mind, the 8th Wonder of the World. But beyond his artistic brilliance, talent, and whimsy is a man who cares deeply about our world, about his fellow humans, about his daughter, about art, and about the future of our planet. His generosity is unbridled. I happened to mention to him, in passing, that I’d somehow lost my large-format, analog camera in the move from my marital home into my so-called “divorced lady apartment,” and that I would never be able to replace it, as it was an antique. A few months later, he presented me with a replacement he’d somehow magically found online. That’s just one instance of many. As for which came first, the prose or the image, the prose absolutely came first. Then we had to come up with an image to match. For example, the first one, the deformed apple for A is for Acceptance, was an apple Randy found in his own garden on his studio’s roof. It was oddly perfect in its imperfection: not only because the imperfection was in the shape of an A, but because most kiddie alphabet books begin with A is for Apple, so this is a beautiful subversion of that. The H is for helicopter is an h-shaped bit of fence in front of an actual helicopter at an army recruiting station near my mom’s house on the Delaware shore. The Q is for quilt (a rolled-up tape measure) was our editor, Christine Carswell’s, idea. The Y is for yelling I spotted around the corner from my apartment. The J is for Jazz is Randy’s daughter Nico’s saxophone atop his silver couch. In other words, it was a real joint effort involving thought, luck, and paying attention to simple props at home and the built and natural environment.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

This hideous administration, for obvious reasons. Thawing permafrost, because I worry about the world my children will inherit. Healthcare, because my own health has been challenging this summer. And focused breathing, as a stopgap measure antidote to it all.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I’m not sure, but I’m betting it falls somewhere between 1) “What’s the meaning of life?” (no idea, but love, presence, and ice cream come close) and 2) “Who’s on first?” (What, duh.)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Christopher Swann talks about boarding school, trauma, why you don't want a reader who just says, "love it!" with a smiley emoji, and his brilliant novel SHADOW OF THE LIONS

Christopher Swann is chair of the English Department at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta, where he has taught English for more than 20 years. He's another Algonquin author, which means he is family from now on!  I'm so thrilled to have him here!

I loved all the material about boarding school. Did you attend one yourself?  And if so, did you find it freeing?
 I’m glad you liked the boarding school material. I did attend boarding school—Woodberry Forest, in Virginia. Blackburne is kind of based on Woodberry, especially physically, but I made several alterations. Let’s say that a lot of the good aspects of Blackburne come from Woodberry, and the bad aspects of Blackburne I made up.
Did I find boarding school freeing? Now that’s an interesting question. Usually people who aren’t familiar with boarding schools think of them as some sort of elite prisons, like dumping grounds for Holden Caulfield-esque teens. This isn’t true in my experience. If you attend a place like Blackburne, you have access to incredible teachers and mentors. Living at your school as a teenager, without the freedoms available to you as an older college student, can feel isolating. A boarding school a contained environment. And yet the whole experience of boarding school is pretty freeing. It may not feel that way at the time. However, I am very much who I am as an adult in large part because of my boarding school experience. It’s not that I was shaped by my school, exactly, although that’s part of it. It’s that at boarding school I was allowed—encouraged, even—to grow and develop as a student and as an adolescent male in ways that I probably would not have been at a traditional day school. I write in my book that classmates at boarding school can establish close-knit friendships that, on a platonic level, may not be experienced again until marriage. The other aspect, of course, is that you spend the majority of your adolescence, from age 14 to 18, away from home and your parents. Of course you go home for vacations, but for nearly eight months out of the year you live away from home. You grow up and learn responsibility a bit sooner than you might otherwise, and you form tight-knit relationships that can last your entire life.
I’m haunted by the things we do as kids that we would never do as adults—and how those crimes shadow us. If we’re lucky, as in a way Matthias is, we get to reconfront them—but what do you think would have happened to Matthias if he never had that chance?

That is one of the shadows the title alludes to—in this case, Matthias’ fear that this one event clouds his entire life. Luckily, I didn’t experience any kind of traumatic event like Matthias does, but I often think there but for the grace of God go I. I have always enjoyed mysteries, and when writing this book I spent a lot of time thinking about Fritz and what happened to him. But I was even more interested in what would happen to Matthias, and to everyone else affected by Fritz’s disappearance. What kind of effect would that have on you?
 My senior or sixth form year at Woodberry, a girl I knew died in a car crash. I had known her for a few years and our parents were friends, although she and I were more like friendly acquaintances. But she was cute and vibrant and fun to be around, and when I got the news she had died, I was gutted. She was the first person I knew in my age group to die. I remember thinking how utterly unfair and wrong it was. How did this happen? For several weeks her death haunted me, and at first I wasn’t sure why. I hadn’t been secretly in love with her, and we weren’t even especially close, although she was always kind and friendly to me. It was that I was young, and like all young people I thought I was immortal, and when that fantasy was stripped away, which happens to all of us at some point, I was shaken. The girl’s parents and younger sister now had this horrible truth that they had to bear for the rest of their lives. It was just an awful, tragic loss.
Without being conscious of the connection, I wrote my book in part to explore the uncomfortable aftermath in the wake of a tragedy. But I wanted the tragedy in my book to contain a mystery. Death is final. Disappearance is not, and always leaves a question behind: what really happened? Fritz’s disappearance affects Matthias in ways he cannot imagine. He, too, is gutted by the loss of his missing friend. But Matthias has the sense that he can do something—even if he isn’t certain what that something is—to make amends, to put things right. It’s always dangerous to predict what fictional characters would do—my own characters often surprise me with the choices they make! But if Matthias had not had the chance to confront his past, I think he would have wound up bitter, gnawed by a sense of failed promise and culpability. Then again, maybe he could channel that into his writing and find success again. Who knows?

Matthias believes he is a failed writer, which of course is every single writer’s fear. With the praise you are getting for Shadow of the Lions, this certainly isn’t a worry of yours—but was it ever? And what did you do about it?

Hold on a sec . . . just knocking on wood. You’re very kind, Caroline—thank you. Of course I was afraid of being a failed writer—not just of failing in a particular instance of writing, but failing at the entire endeavor. I knew in eighth grade that I wanted to be a writer. And for every passing year, and for every story about a newly discovered literary wunderkind—you know, the genius novelist who’s an undergraduate at Yale and still not old enough to legally drink—for all that, I just shrugged and put my head down and wrote. Not continuously, not every day. There were months that went by when I didn’t write any fiction, maybe a solid year at one point. I don’t know why I kept going, honestly. Stubbornness, I suppose. And in retrospect it seem that at every crucial step, something happened that buoyed my confidence. A teacher encouraged me. A classmate I admired said something complimentary about a story I had written. After dozens of rejections, I had my first short story published. Et cetera.
 Last year Alison Umminger, a grad-school classmate of mine at Missouri, published a wonderful YA novel, American Girls, which you have to read. (Her original title for it was My Favorite Manson Girl, which is what the U.K. edition is called.) I attended a reading she gave at Underground Books in Carrollton, Georgia, where she is a professor at West Georgia. I hadn’t seen her in nearly twenty years. At Missouri she was a great writer, funny and honest and so damn smart. Of course she hadn’t changed a bit, and we visited with each other briefly before she gave her reading to a packed house. In her opening remarks, she talked about the long road to publication, and then to my surprise mentioned me and my own upcoming novel. “I guess for both of us, slow and steady really does win the race,” she said, or words to that effect. And I think that’s true. Johnny Evison, who I met on the Internet years ago and who has been such a guide and inspiration, wrote for years before he got published. His agent—who was also my first agent—had to send him a box of food at one point. And now he’s the author of four amazing novels, a fifth in the pipeline, and a sixth in the works.
I do have a secret weapon, though. And like many successful writers, my secret weapon is my better half. My wife Kathy is one of the most patient women in history. She’s my fiercest critic and my biggest cheerleader. She will tell me when I’ve written something terrible. I’ll give her a scene and she’ll read it and say, “Real men and women don’t talk to each other like this,” and I’ve learned instead of huffing or arguing about it, I should listen. That’s wisdom, I guess.

I always want to know about the creative process. Do you write on scrap paper, on a computer, pen or pencil? Do you have rituals?

I write almost everything on a laptop. My handwriting is lousy, although I’ll occasionally jot something down on a scrap piece of paper or in a notebook. But my mother sent me to typing lessons one summer when I was thirteen. It was a class full of housewives going back to work. I was the only male. The next youngest student was maybe twenty-six. But by God, I learned how to type. And I’ve been typing ever since.
For maybe the second half of my novel, I stuck to what my wife refers to as “sacred writing time.” Usually it’s from eight o’clock in the evening to ten or so. Nora Roberts—she didn’t invent this idea, but the first time I heard it was from her—she said that the secret to her success as a writer was “Ass in the chair.” There’s something to that. And I know it works, because when I would skip watching TV or playing on my phone or reading a book and instead put my ass in the chair in front of my laptop, I would produce writing. And for the past several months, various events have conspired against sacred writing time, and I’ve written very little on my second book. This summer, before I go on book tour, I plan to reinstate sacred writing time.
What’s it like for you being a debut author?

Surreal. A few weeks ago my editor said we needed to choose a narrator for the audiobook version of my novel. She had two voice actors in mind and sent me their audio files. So I sat in my classroom during a free period and listened on my phone to two different voice actors reading the opening pages of my own novel.

I’m still a little self-conscious about saying “my agent” or “my editor.” A friend or colleague will ask about my book, and I’ll say, “Well, I was just talking to my editor,” and then I’ll think I sound like I’m bragging. I’m letting that go, though.
Algonquin has been absolutely fabulous—I could not have asked for a better publisher on my first go around. A few months ago I was on a group call with maybe a dozen or so people at Algonquin—my editor, the publicist, marketing, copy editors, the whole nine yards—and I just wanted to hug all of them. I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was in eighth grade, and now it’s actually happening. How often do you have a life-long dream and then you achieve it, and then you can keep on doing it (knock on wood again)?

Mainly I’m just consciously trying to enjoy the whole experience, appreciate every moment. I have friends who are consultants and fly to other parts of the country every week, they spend their weeknights in hotels—it’s part of their job. Me, I’m going to go on book tour, and when I stay in a hotel, I’m going to be the guy who’s all delighted that there’s an iron in my room. “I have an iron! Wow, that’s so thoughtful! Wait, there’s a mini-fridge, too?” I’m like that right now about everything having to do with the publication of my book. And I want to keep that feeling for as long as possible. And I’m both excited by and terrified at the prospect of giving a reading. What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t laugh at my jokes? But then I remember that I make a living, in part, on getting up in front of groups of people who may not care about what I have to say, and I have to engage them and convince them that what I am going to say might be interesting. 

Almost everyone I have met in this business—editors, agents, publicists, booksellers, and especially authors—has been so generous and supportive and kind. It’s like I’ve found my people, you know? And I got my first review on Goodreads, by someone I did not know, and she gave Shadow of the Lions five stars. It was the loveliest feeling, to know that a complete stranger had read my story and enjoyed it. That’s part of why we write stories, isn’t it? Because we want to write something that will have the same kind of impact that another book or author had on us.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Politics, although I’m trying to cut down on the amount of political news I read. There’s only so much healthy outrage I can maintain before I start feeling ill.

The book series The Expanse by James S. A. Corey.  The TV series is on SyFy and it’s awesome, season two ended this spring, but the books are these incredible plot-driven stories with great characters that, at the same time, wrestle with some really big metaphysical questions about humanity and conflict and community. And they also manage to realistically depict the hard science of living and traveling in space. Any one of those things is difficult to pull off; to do all three is amazing. And my own book and the book tour and everything around that. It’s not that I’m being narcissistic or super-anxious. It’s just that I want it to go well. I want people to like my book, and so I have to do my best to promote it and I want people who come out to hear me read to enjoy the experience.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
 Everything I’m coming up with sounds so lame.  Which is probably why you didn’t ask me those things.
I will add some advice for people who have been writing for years without success. If you love stories and you love writing, don’t quit. If you don’t like writing, or you don’t love stories, then for God’s sake move on to something else. But if you do, don’t quit. Read widely, write regularly, and show your work to someone you trust who won’t just write “Love it!” in the margins or send you a smiley face emoji. Slow and steady wins the race. And it’s not really a race, except with time, which always wins in the end. But you can sidestep your own mortality by writing something that a stranger will pick up years from now and think, “Now that’s a good story.” And the only way to achieve that is to put your ass in the chair and write.

Surfing to explain philosophy? Yep, yep, yep, Aaron James talks about Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning

How could I ever resist a book with this title? So I didn't. And then I loved the book so much, I asked Aaron if he would come on the blog. Aaron James is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine,and the author of Assholes: A Theory, and I'm delighted to have him here. Thank you, Aaron.

Why do you think that surfing lends itself to philosophizing?

I think surfing is all about what I call bodily “adapative attunement” to the changing movements of a wave, and the ocean and coastline that creates and shapes them in certain way.  Whether you are thinking about it or not, this often brings a deep appreciation of the sublime and the beautiful, drawing you out of yourself, in awe, respect, and wonderment.  In that way you naturally transcend the mundane, even on the most ordinary day, often with a profound sense of fortune, or even gratitude, that the circumstances of one’s life have coalesced as they now have.  Which is already a kind of reflection of a philosophical sort.  But then ideas can be sublime, or even beautiful, as well.  And being attuned to them through skillful philosophical thought or discussion is also a way of transcending the drab or the blah in the mundane, a way of being more attuned to what’s wonderful or curious or puzzling in ordinary life.  So although surfing and philosophizing draw on different skills, to me at least, the enterprises are valuable in much the same general way.

I love the title, though the idea of Jean Paul Sartre surfing is delicious—and maybe that’s part of the delight of your essays, getting us to think about things in a new and fun way. Care to talk about this?

It is really fun that, deep in his long masterwork _Being and Nothingness_, Sartre has these long passages about snow skiing and freedom.  He writes in this excited rush, as he often does, just enthralled with looking at skiing in a deep, fresh way.  I thought I should do something like that with surfing, picking up from Sartre’s comments about waterskiing, which he thinks of as even better than skiing.  So I’m trying to do phenomenology in something of the way Sartre understood it, in hopes of looking at things in a new way and discovering what would otherwise be obscure, which is delightful and fun in itself.

What was it like writing these essays? Any snags along the way?

To me the idea of the book was exciting for its scope and ambition.  It could be like an olden style treatise of the sort you can’t write in specialized academic philosophy these days.  The general reader might want to just see big connections, so I thought the book should “surf” through any and every big issue in philosophy that surfing might illuminate.  But it took me a long time to figure out how all the topics and parts might fit together, with some sort of progression that adds up to a grand picture.  It helped a lot when I realized the chapters could mainly be general, single-word topics, like Freedom, Control, Flow, Being, Transcendence, Society, Nature, Work, etc..  Then I could just focus on the ideas that seemed to develop that particular topic, and stack the topics across the chapters so that they build upon each other over the course of the whole book.

I’m curious if your personal philosophy ever changes—and why?

Well, I think of myself as constantly learning.  A lot of the time you feel like you’re gradually understanding more fully what you were already inclined to think, what you previously had a bare grasp of, or saw dimly, in the distance.  But the new learning also gradually shifts other things you feel like you might have mostly sorted out.  In working on the book I became much clearer for myself about what exactly I have always loved about surfing.  And in reading around all the various areas of philosophy, which go beyond my usual specializations, I was led into some new research interests.  I now think professional philosophers haven’t really appreciated certain connections, which I’m hoping bring out in my academic writings.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m tacking back to some of my core interests in political philosophy at the moment, planning what will be another academic book on international socio-economic issues.  I’m also thinking more about a pop book that joins asshole and surfer theory by offering ideas about how to get from our present culture of assholery to a more leisurely, less competitive kind of capitalism.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

And now for something even more different! Joyce Maynard and I video chat about her memoir THE BEST OF US, plus a giveaway

I first met Joyce Maynard through email. She was kind, gracious, and really funny. But best of all, we got to meet at a Book Fest, and I was having such a good time talking with her that I impulsive said, "Let me film you for my blog!" She agreed, and of course, my phone screwed up. BUT, we did the interview later. And it's there in the link at the bottom! AND here:

And there's more! Bloomsbury and Joyce Maynard are offering to send a personalized, signed book plate from Joyce to anyone in the US and Canada who sends in proof of preorder before publication. This can be from any retailer. To enter submit a photo of a receipt, an email receipt, or a screenshot of an order.  They need to be sent in before September 5, 2017  in order to qualify.
More information and submission form here:

And here is the refrain of Joyce's very first song , from songwriting camp--which she sings in the video.. 

It’s a year since you left me
I sold your guitar
Gave your boots to your son
Smoked your last good cigar
And I’m not going to die here
I’m back out on the road,
But I wear your blue shirt, dear
It feels good.

And if someday I love
Though there’s none here for now
I will know how I got there
It was you showed me how.
It’s a skill newly learned
It was you showed me how. 

HERE is the video !

Saturday, August 5, 2017

And now for something different! Anne Korkeakivi and I talk about promoting hardcovers and then paperbacks, and lots of other stuff, too!

Portrait of the gorgeous, genius author Anne Korkeakivi

I love Anne Korkeakivi's work, especially Shining Sea, a transcendent novel about great love and great loss. I met her at a book event, and then I got to love her, too. We got to talking about our paperbacks and decided we would share the conversation.  We hope it's helpful and fun to read.

Caroline: Let's talk about the hardback/paperback thing. Are you exhausted after promoting your hardback? Paperback is much less, but it feels to me that I am always promoting. Do you feel the same way? Do you have strategies to deal with it?

Anne: As a largely expat author, here’s my strategy: transmutation. I look at, for example, social media outreach not as promotion but as a chance to interact with other bookish people, something I don’t get to do much in my day-to-day life overseas. Same for events and book festivals. This is all life, right? I make a point of enjoying it.

Tessa Hadley told me once that no sooner does she send a manuscript off to her agent than she starts work on a new one. That new work-in-progress becomes a psychological buffer. This doesn’t fit with my process, to date--I like to spend a long time researching and getting to know my characters before I start writing--but it seems incredibly smart to me.

How about you? Have you developed an effective strategy? And how about paperback promotion? The book is the same, but both the book-selling and book-buying process are different.

Caroline: I totally agree with having something new to work on, otherwise I just get obsessed with all the details. How is the book doing? What can I do to make it do even better? Plus, what I love the most is that deep state of being in the zone and writing. I feel like I killed myself doing publicity for the hardcover of Cruel Beautiful World, all those planes, trains, and Lyfts! Paperback is a lot different. People are more apt to wander into a bookstore and grab up a book, and I think essays out there do a lot to get the word out. And maybe pleading on social media, too!

Mostly, though, what is so lovely is I am writing my next novel, it's sold already, but I still have to write it and it's scaring me! Did writing your novel scare you at all? And how did you deal with that?

Anne: Very first, congrats on having sold the next novel!

Writing my novels has never scared me. It’s the thought of not writing them that scares me. But I've not been in your position; perhaps it’s more frightening when you have a deal and deadline for a novel in hand. How do you balance working on the next novel while getting the last one into publication? My characters tend to populate my head so thoroughly that I find I need to put them to bed before I can start hanging out with a whole other crew. Or do you mean that you start something new as soon as the former book has gone to press?

Caroline: That's so fascinating, Anne. The thought of not writing is scary, indeed. I had a four-month period a few years ago where I was so overwhelmed, I actually said, that's it, I give up. And I didn't write, and then that damned hunger started up and there I was. It's half and half. On the one hand, I love having a deal because then I can sigh and say, oh thank God, I don't have to worry for two years. But then there is the HUGE worry of "Oh my God, I spent my whole advance and I have to deliver a novel and I have no idea what I am doing!

I always start thinking of a new novel when I am nearing the end of the 67th draft (yeah 67...) so I cannot give myself space to panic.

So, if you hadn't been a writer, what would you have been? I have been a failure as a receptionist (gave Dr. Foot the podiatrist the calls from Dr. Foot the obstetrician and was fired), a worker at a factory that made dirty puzzles (I left after a woman had her hair caught in the glue press), a copywriter for a public TV station, a teacher for juvenile delinquent boys (Total failure)... So it's lucky I found something I can do!

Anne: I’m glad you didn’t give up writing, Caroline. It sounds as though being a novelist is much better suited for you than working as a medical receptionist! My childhood dream was to be a musician. As I matured, many people assumed I’d become a classicist, because I was a dab hand at Ancient Greek translation and I really did love it. But there was never any question in my mind that I’d be a writer. In a way, the predetermination of it bothered me. But it just was.

So, here we both are—novelists. What you said about paperbacks being bought differently is so true. Paperbacks also are very much about book groups. Bless the book groups! Still, I’ll be doing some events. It’s fun to celebrate. I’ll have a launch on August 8 in Brooklyn and do something in the Boston area two days later. Then in September I’m going out the west coast--San Diego, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles--which I didn’t do for the hardcover. I’m incredibly excited about it, because Shining Sea is about a SoCal family, so it feels like bringing the book home. Also each event is different, and I like trying things. I’m particularly happy that one event involves fundraising—as writers we need to do what we can.

How about you? It’s a little tricky doing a summer release.

Caroline: Do you think there is such a thing as summer books? I don't. I don't think emotions have a season. I don't want lighter books in summer. I still want the dark, thorny ones that crack your heart open. I do, however, think that paperbacks make a difference because people are more willing to take a chance on them--and they often buy doubles! I saw that happen with my first two novels for Algonquin, Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, which were paperback originals. This upset me at the time because I thought I'd lose reviews and sales, but instead, both were New York Times Bestsellers! I was thrilled. So when Algonquin told me they were going to put Cruel Beautiful World in hardback, I begged them not to! So I'm really looking forward to it being out in paperback.

Except that all my PR feels like it was done already for the hardback!

Anne: In a recent article in Broadly, Ilana Masad suggested that the idea of “summer” books might be tied to a vision of the world as a place where women take the summer off while the men are working. I agree with you—and Masad—that there’s something fishy in the very concept. I asked my publicist once, though, in what way Shining Sea might be a “summer” book and she said because the story takes the reader many places, and in summer people are dreaming of traveling.

At any rate, the nice thing is if you’re pretty well done with promotion already, Caroline, you don’t have to worry about those planes, trains, and Lyfts you mentioned. Enjoy!

Oh. My. God. This book. What Are We Even Doing With Our Lives: The Most Honest Children's Book of All Time by Chelsea Marshall and Mary Dauterman is some kind of insane genius.

You want this book. You need this book.

Genius at work

 In this a charming, satirical "children’s" book, BuzzFeed’s lead animal editor Chelsea Marshall and acclaimed art director/illustrator Mary Dauterman introduce us to Digi Valley and 21st Century urban life. It's a town filled with animal people who run vegan cafes, Uber around, and stay on their cell phones, and it is total genius.

I'm thrilled to have them here, and I loved this book so much, I bought extra copies for friends so we can obsess about it together.

I loved this book so much, I want to marry it. It’s so slyly witty and so spot on about how and why we live the way we do. So when was the “we have to write and draw this book” moment? What happened right before the big decision? 

Mary: I had been drawing some of these characters for a while when I asked Chelsea to come onto the project. 

Chelsea: We both have really similar senses of humor and we started brainstorming where we could take all these characters and knew there was so much fun to be had with it. A lot of this process was “does this make you laugh?” and if it did, we went with it. 

Why a children’s book for all ages? (I bet I know the answer, but I want to hear you both talk about it!) 

Chelsea: A lot of our favorite cartoons (Rugrats + Spongebob for instance) were so funny and great as kids growing up, and then you watch them as an adult and they’re still really funny and great in a new way because you notice more of the adult themes. The world is a really weird place and it’s kind of a relief when you realize someone else is like “OMFG I THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO NOTICED.” 

Mary: It’s pretty great to be the adults hiding multiple layers of jokes in the story. Lots of jokes buried in the phones and characters’ interactions within scenes. 
I bet it was hilarious fun to write and draw this book. Which came first, words or pictures? Did you brainstorm together? What thing do you now wish you had done that you didn’t? 

Chelsea: We did brainstorm a lot together. We’re BFFs IRL so it just came naturally and random jokes that we had ended up making it into the book. It’s was so fun to work with someone you can just go “hey can a parrot eating salami be renting out this room?” and without batting an eye she draws a character even greater than your imagination. Some brainstorms just turned into drinking wine and talking about how much we love Beyonce though. 

Mary: We had a long list of “scenes” and jobs, then Chelsea made a proper outline/flow of the book while I started drawing scenes and backgrounds. 

Chelsea: The flow is based off of an improv game where you have two characters in a scene, one leaves and a new one comes in. So each scene in the book has a character from the last one, even if they’re just in the background. 

Mary: There are a lot of stories woven together and recurring characters that we hope people discover and love as much as we do! Sometimes Chelsea would write something and then I would draw it how I was envisioning, then Chelsea would be excited about another character or
part of the drawing and tweak the writing a little or add more weirdness. I kept drawing this one kind of depressed looking bird and Chelsea came up with a whole backstory and made him kind of a perv, haha. 

Chelsea: The whole process was all very fluid and fun! If we had more time, we would have made more characters based on our friends, and a bigger storyline around Diana Flurmph, who is running for mayor of DigiValley. We had a lot to say post-election but the book was almost done by then. 

The characters are hilariously real from a beauty blogger to a freelancer (sigh, aren’t we all?) to a realtor (real estate in cities is always big, big, big). Was there any character type you considered but then rejected? And if so, why? And please will you do a sequel? 

Mary: There were definitely more characters, and most didn’t make it into the book just due to timing! We were talking about a baby DJ, food cart vendor, a college student, a dispensary, and a bunch of others buried somewhere in our emails. 

Chelsea: Of course we’d love to do a sequel! One of the first characters created was “Cat Landlord” and we’d love to explore his weird life as a reality TV star/cat landlord in depth. 

The Internet going down is one of my biggest fears—and it actually impacts Digtown. I love my iphone, but I also hate the zombification of everyone staring at their phones, and I resent being bumped into 50 times a day by people on the city streets watching their phones rather than sidewalk traffic. Is there a happy Medium? 

Chelsea: I love that technology can keep us connected to people we may not see everyday, and access to things we may never have seen or known otherwise. (full disclosure: this book was largely shaped over a series of google docs) Of course, that also means we can forget to connect with people in front of us or accidentally find the new 2 girls, one cup vid but there definitely is a balance. We suggest airplane mode from time to time. 

Digtown is totally busy! It reminded me of the Richard Scary Busytown books that my son adored—and in comparing and contrasting the two books, you can see a huge difference in how we live, or how we aspire to live...can you talk about this please? 

Chelsea: We were definitely influenced by Richard Scarry’s Busytown and we nod to it a few times. A thing we wanted to address that most kid’s books gloss over is how boring the everyday can be despite being hyperconnected all the time (every character has a phone nearby). The mundane is absurd and hilarious when you pull back from it a little bit and ask what the hell are we even doing?